Investigators criticize performance of NASA watchdog
Say IG tipped off officials on probes, quashed a report
WASHINGTON -- NASA's top watchdog routinely tipped off department officials to internal investigations and quashed a report related to the Columbia shuttle explosion to avoid embarrassing the agency, investigators say.
A report by the Integrity Committee, a government board that investigates inspectors general, found that Robert Cobb "created an appearance of a lack of independence," and it questioned whether the National Aeronautics and Space Administration would do enough to reprimand him.
Michael Griffin, NASA administrator, has proposed sending Cobb to leadership training and requiring he meet regularly with department officials on how to improve, but that is not enough, said James Burrus, chairman of the Integrity Committee.
"All members of the committee believe that disciplinary action, up to and including removal, could be appropriate," he said in a previously unreleased report that also faulted Cobb for misusing authority to create an "abusive work environment."
In responses to the Integrity Committee, Griffin defended Cobb, arguing that he was being faulted only for the appearance of a conflict of interest. Cobb has acknowledged that he cultivated relationships in the department to build trust but never stepped over the line.
"This has been a trying year for Mr. Cobb and I have been impressed with his continued focus on his professional obligations to the Congress and to the agency," Griffin wrote. He said the report "does not contain evidence of a lack of integrity on the part of Mr. Cobb."
The report, completed Jan. 22 and made public this week by the House Committee on Science and Technology, threatens to renew questions of conflicts of interest and cronyism in a Bush administration under fire for allegedly exerting undue political influence in the firing of US attorneys.
Only President Bush can dismiss Cobb, a former White House aide whom Bush hired as NASA's inspector general in 2002. The White House has said it is satisfied with NASA's plans to require leadership training for Cobb, a former adviser on ethics to former White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales.
But three key lawmakers who chair Senate and House subcommittees with jurisdiction over the space agency disagree. They are calling for Cobb's resignation and are pledging to pursue hearings if necessary to investigate Cobb's conduct.
"This inspector general's own peers -- after months of investigation -- found that he has abused his position of authority and lacked an appearance of independence from top officials at NASA," said Representative Bart Gordon, chairman of the Science and Technology committee.
Internal e-mails and documents made available yesterday paint a picture of Cobb as an inspector general more concerned with preserving cozy relationships than maintaining independence in the agency he is charged with overseeing.
The report found that Cobb met then-NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe at least twice monthly between 2002 and 2005 for private lunch meetings dubbed in calendar logs as "Administrator's Hideaway." Cobb also flew with O'Keefe on NASA aircraft, and he accepted O'Keefe's golf invitations.
Cobb also routinely sought O'Keefe's advice via e-mail on how to structure audit investigations, and allowed O'Keefe to review a draft inspector general opinion regarding the independence of the Columbia accident investigation.
At other times, Cobb tipped off O'Keefe to various audits.